Dreaming Magical History: A Review
Susanna Clarke. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel.
London: Bloomsbury, 2004. 782 pp.
This brilliant first novel, bound in plain black with white lettering is a truly remarkable feat and a marvelous read for any lover of magic or of 19th-Century British literature. Ms Clarke writes in the style of Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope, a witty confabulation of Gothic tale and drawing room romance. Her vocabulary, authorial intrusions, and even spelling mimic the period with wry wit. The book is not, however, simply an historical novel. The title characters are two practicing magicians in an alternative England that long ago was divided into northern and southern kingdoms. King George III may rule all of it now, but that is only because the king of the north, the legendary Raven King, removed himself mysteriously into the realm of Faerie after ruling the north for some three hundred years.
The history of the Raven King and his faerie-taught magic lies in the distant past for the magicians of the Napoleonic era. For some two centuries magic has fallen from its glory days of the “Aureate” magicians through the period of the “Argentines” who still practiced the art a bit, to the present age when magicians are all merely historians of magic, wistfully studying the many old, rare books of a bygone tradition. That is, until the reclusive Mr. Norrell emerges on the scene.Gilbert Norrell is a marvelously drawn character – antisocial, pedantic, and highly concerned to preserve his own monopoly on practical magic. George Eliot's Mr. Casaubon with spells. He hoards books in his library at Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire and bores everyone with lectures on scholarly minutiae. When he leaves his seclusion and sets out to become England’s greatest living magician, Norrell enters London society with the help of two highly suspect characters, the foppish gossip Drawlight and the cynical, womanizer Lacelles – villains worthy of Dickens. Yet these men pale in comparison to the mysterious fairy that Mr. Norell conjures for a particularly crucial spell that secures his fame among the ministers and aristocrats of England. Known only as “the gentleman with the thistle-down hair” throughout the book, this fairy king is a vain, mischievous, and bloodthirsty creature – surely destined to be remembered as one of the great villains of English fantasy.
Jonathan Strange is the “other magician” who emerges on the scene following Mr. Norrell’s revival of “English magic.” Mr. Strange is a wealthy young gentleman whose character is much more daring than that of the older man. Norell becomes his teacher in magic, chiefly to prevent Strange becoming a rival. Mr. Strange grows increasingly curious about fairy magic and the hidden Otherworlds that Mr. Norrell insists should not be meddled with. Norrell hides many of his precious books from his pupil in order to keep Strange (and everyone else) from employing fairies, whom he considers, quite justifiably, to be a dangerous, fickle, and tricky race. As one might expect, the master and pupil eventually have a falling out – in this case, after Strange has grown confident serving on the battlefield with Wellington doing practical magic in the Penninsular War.
The machinations of Norrell’s shady friends, his mysterious servant Childermass, and the prophesying street magician Vinculus, lead us into a wonderfully suspenseful and tangled story full of visions of the Fairy Realms, curses, scrying, and abductions through enchantment. In short, without giving too much away, the story itself is tremendous fun. Ms Clarke’s writing style is delightful, ranging from the witty to the sublime. Her descriptions of the way magic changes one’s perception of reality, and the queer alternative logic of Faerie are a delight. Her Fairy Otherworlds are strange, eerie, eldritch places, just on the other side of our mirrors or down a curious country path.Apart from the sheer entertainment of this novel for anyone who loves magic or the period, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell raises profound questions about the magical arts, the nature of reality, and madness. In more than one case, a person who is considered to be mad turns out to be able to see fairies. In a footnote we read:
Richard Chaston (1620-95)… wrote that men and fairies both contain within them a faculty of reason and a faculty of magic. In men reason is strong and magic is weak. With fairies it is the other way round: magic comes very naturally to them, but by human standards they are barely sane. (p. 235)
Similarly, those humans enchanted by fairies seem insane to those who do not understand. The line between the consciousness of the madman and the consciousness of magicians is a thin and vaporous one indeed. In the latter half of the novel, Strange leaves England for Italy and becomes a figure rather like Byron’s dark Manfred. Ironically, Ms Clarke has her hero meet up with Lord Byron and become one of the inspirations for his famous poem. The story flirts with the connections between poetic imagination, psychosis, and a world in which multiple worlds actually do interpenetrate and the cultivation of a particular consciousness (aided by words, gestures, and the occasional strange potion) will open these hidden doorways, transform the seemingly solid everyday reality of things, and yield a world infinitely more complex than we suppose.
I found Ms Clarke’s representations of magical vision and travel through Faerie to be quite uncanny. Her realistic style makes the fantastic utterly plausible, and the psychological hazards of travel to the Otherworlds – what we might today call shamanic experiences – vivid indeed. Reading this novel as a wizard, practitioner of magic, and otherworld traveler, I found it to be at times rather unnerving, so strongly does it appeal to the imagination, and so dark and frightening are Ms Clarke’s fairy woods.
As a scholar of the history of magic, I was transported by one device of the novel that might not be to everyone’s taste: namely the extensive footnotes. Threatening from time to time to take over the novel’s pages entirely, the footnotes create the sense of historical realism to the completely fictitious history of magic in the world of the book. It is a technique Ms Clarke handles deftly in the tradition of Borges or Marquez. Readers who study the actual history of magic and who collect rare books are likely to become enthralled by the notion that all of these fictitious volumes and authors actually exist in our world. Oh, for the works of Pale, Belasis, Ormskirk, and Sutton-Grove with their spells and learned lore about Faerie. Ah, if only there had been a Raven King, that Once and Future King who brought Fairy magic to medieval England. Faced as one is in real life with inscrutable Old Irish myths, the remnants of John Dee, and the pomposity of Aleister Crowley or Magregor Mathers, one can only sigh after such a library of magical books as Mr. Norrell possesses.
Yet, bibliomania aside, Ms. Clarke writes a cautionary tale, one that forces us to remember that meddling with reality is always dangerous, and that in a world of politics successful practical magicians are likely to become tools of governments, pawns of self-interested friends, or victims of the strange morality of the Fairy races. The character of the magician, more than his technique, determines the consequences of his magic. Ms Clarke has obviously done her research into old Fairy lore. Her invented magical techniques also display a great deal of knowledge about how magic is and has been practiced in our own, “real” history. Many are so good, in fact, that one is tempted to try them out! The book is a bit like Harry Potter for adults (I don’t think there are any children in the book except perhaps in one or two of the tales related in the notes). Like the books of J.K. Rowling, however, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell presents magic to us in a literalized form. Fiction nearly always does this, of course. That is its advantage. In the literal world of story, one can actually step up and walk into a mirror in a novel without leaving one’s body behind.
Ms Clarke does an excellent job of introducing some level of ambiguity about such things, however. When various characters are forced by enchantment to spend every night in Faerie dancing at balls and marching in Fairy processions, we are not entirely sure they have not left their bodies behind, for we see the world dissolve from each one’s subjective position, we are shown how worlds may be superimposed over each other, so that there are hints of just how complex is the phenomenology of perception. The struggle between the two title characters strikes to the central debate in the world of actual magicians: Namely, the question of the relative value of book-learning and historical research, versus simply re-inventing magic based upon principles and intuition.
It is a good question, and as we might expect the author answers this either-or question by saying “Both!” Mr. Norrell values the scholarly approach and his nature is for the most part cautious and methodical (except for one crucial error in judgment), while Jonathan Strange is forced to rely on his own wits, inventing spells and experimenting until he solves a particularly knotty problem. It is ironic that the more “scientific” of the two (Strange) becomes through the course of events the more “Romantic” and Promethean of the two, something again utterly in tune with the period in which the story is set – the period of Byron and Shelley.
Another aspect of the story that is a product of its real historical setting is the role of women. There are no witches in this world and even the strongest of the female characters -- Lady Pole, Arabella Strange, or Miss Greysteel -- are largely bound to the customary role of women in their culture. It is interesting, however, that the revival of magical study provides an outlet for women in this Regency world. Mr. Strange, in one of his many disagreements with his old mentor, insists that there is no reason women should not learn magic. There were several famous female magicians in the book's imagined history. There is nothing like the twentieth century's radical feminist spirituality, not the slightest suggestion of a Goddess to worship, and such would be out of place in the novel's setting.
As in Harry Potter's world, magic in many ways substitutes for religion and the absence of gods or goddesses leaves the characters to fend for themselves on their own mettle. They seek no "salvation" other than that which they make for themselves and they look inward to their own strength of character and outward only to their friendships with other like-minded souls. There is nothing like the Mother Earth Goddess so often revered in twentieth-century paganism, and yet the stones, the rain, and the trees are, in a way, the saviors of the main characters. For it is only when Strange realizes that the power of fairy magic lies in the fairies' ability to communicate and join with Nature. This part of the story is particularly likely to appeal to modern followers of Druidry.
One of the curious aspects of this book is its use of the term “English magic” as distinct from the magic of any other land. Due to the unique emergence of the Raven King into history, we are lead to believe that the English have a particular monopoly on the magical sphere. Indeed, while Ms Clarke has invented a delightful fictitious bibliography of authors for England, her story rather pointedly ignores any magical tradition in other parts of Europe, much less the rest of the world. I’m not sure why, apart from a desire simply to focus on England. Yet it is not out of the author’s sense of national pride, for she represents her characters' chauvinism as something rather amusing. Still, they come across as wholly justified when poor Napoleon is unable to procure a single magician to aid his war against the British and their magician. In this world there is no Eliphas Levi, and indeed seemingly no Hermetic tradition at all. England is uniquely magical and the rest is simply absent. Indeed, with the middle ages as the Golden Age of the Raven King, it isn’t clear that there ever was a Renaissance or how the Reformation might have occurred.
As when I read Harry Potter, I found myself wishing sometimes that Ms. Clarke did not fictionalize the history of magic quite so much. Not because her version was less enjoyable than the reality, but because so few of her readers are likely to know that there is a real history of magic. Ms Rowling, in her books, does at least give nods to the likes of Nicholas Flamel and other real figures of history, but in the imaginary world of Potter as in the world of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, readers are left without the wonders of Hermeticism, neo-Platonism, and alchemy. The world of this novel is an improvement on the map of the worlds presented in Harry Potter in that it does not completely ignore religion. Its four-part structure includes Earth, Faerie, Heaven, and Hell but we don’t see anything of the latter two places. We do see a society in which clergymen have to get along with magicians and cope with all of the ontological and theological questions their practices raise. Lucifer is mentioned as an adversary from whom the Raven King won some real estate on the far side of Hell, but otherwise divinities are simply absent.
While she touches on religion, Ms. Clarke does not give us any pat answers to those conundrums which have plagued the real history of magic – such as witch burnings and heresies – implying that clergyman and magician represent two different approaches to the same field and simply have to deal with it. The book’s cosmology is based on that of the Fairy Faith of the Christian medieval world. There is most notably absent from “English magic” anything of the Norse or Germanic World Tree or its mythos. None of the gods and goddesses of paganism enter into the story, any more than the Christian, Muslim, or Jewish gods do. It is mentioned that Fairies adopted Catholic saints into their magical formulas, suggesting that the fairies occupy the place of the pagan Celts and their Druids, but the overall impression is one of an essentially secular world where magic is just another sort of technology.
One passing remark struck me as particularly apt: In a footnote the author has one of her fictional scholars suggest that the language of Faerie is related to the old Celtic tongues. While not overtly Celtic in character, Ms Clarke’s “English magic” has been purged of its foreign influences – no German Rosicrucians or French illuminati (though a French pack of Tarot cards plays a role), and certainly neither Kabbalism nor Jewish mysticism. Neither are there the Egyptian trappings that characterized the actual magical revival of the nineteenth century in orders such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In a world where fairies served at the court of Northern England and there was free commerce between human and sprite, there is not even any need for Freemasons. It is interesting, however, that Christianity and the use of Latin (even by the fairies) is accepted so unproblematically as part of this English magical world.
These points are not meant as criticisms, but merely as ponderables deeply imbedded in a complex and astonishing text. I recommend reading this marvelous novel for yourself and enjoying every minute of it.
Alferian Gwydion MacLir
Minneapolis, November 2004